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Genetics, Theology, and Adam as a Historical Person, Part 1

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December 16, 2010 Tags: Human Origins
Genetics, Theology, and Adam as a Historical Person, Part 1

Today's entry was written by Denis Alexander. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: This is the first entry in a series taken from Denis Alexander’s essay addressing the question, “How Does a BioLogos model need to address the theological issues associated with an Adam who was not the sole genetic progenitor of humankind?” This essay was presented in November 2010 at the Theology of Celebration BioLogos Workshop in New York City.

What is a model?

The question in the title of this paper raises an initial question: in general how should we go about the task of relating theological truths to current scientific theories? Theological truths revealed in Scripture are eternal infallible truths, valid for the whole of humanity for all time, although human interpretations of Scripture are not infallible and may change with time over issues that are not central to the Gospel.

Scientific theories, by contrast, represent the current ‘inference to the best explanation’ for certain phenomena as judged by the scientific community based on criteria such as the interpretation of observations, experimental results, mathematical elegance and the ability of theories to generate fruitful research programmes. Scientific theories are not infallible and will certainly change. However, change does not necessarily imply replacement. Usually scientific theories are not replaced, but modified. In this respect they are often likened to maps that incorporate many different types of data: the maps are revised, as required, to incorporate new data and are improved in the process.

Scientists sometimes use the word ‘model’ to propose one big idea, or a cluster of ideas, that together help to explain certain scientific data. To the despair of philosophers of science, the use of such words in scientific discourse can lack precision. The word ‘model’ is a case in point, its use sometimes overlapping with the term ‘theory’. Usually, however, ‘model’ has a more focused meaning: the way in which certain sets of data can be rendered coherent by explaining them in terms of a physical, mathematical or even metaphorical representation.

During the early 1950s there were several rival models describing the structure of DNA, the molecule that encodes genes. Linus Pauling proposed a triple-helix model. But Jim Watson and Francis Crick had the huge advantage that they obtained the X-ray diffraction pattern results of DNA in advance of publication from another scientist called Rosalind Franklin. The double-helix was in fact the only model that would incorporate all the data satisfactorily, as Watson and Crick published in their famous one-page Nature paper in 1953. Since that time everyone has known that DNA is a double-helix, it’s really not a triple-helix or some other structure. In science models are very powerful.

Not all scientific models win the day so decisively. For many years in my own field of immunology there were endless discussions about how the class of white blood cells known as ‘T cells’ are educated within the body to attack foreign invaders but not (usually) to attack ‘self’, meaning our own tissues. Those discussions are now virtually over because the general model that has emerged explains most of the data quite well, bringing in to the story research results from many different laboratories. But the successful model that prevails is far more ‘messy’ than the exceptionally elegant double-helical model for DNA. The most successful models are not necessarily the simplest. The best models are those that explain the data adequately.

Sometimes rival models exist for long periods of time in the scientific literature because they explain the data equally well. In that case a given model is said to be ‘under-determined by the data’. Everyone agrees with the data that do exist - the disagreement is about how to fit the data together to create the best model. Eventually new data emerge that count in favor of one model rather than another, or that decisively refute a particular model.

When we come to the question as to what ‘Biologos model’ might best address the relationship between the Adam of Genesis and the anthropological and genetic account of a humanity that did not have a single couple as the source of its genetic endowment, then we need to keep in mind these various ways in which the term ‘model’ is deployed in scientific discourse. We will start with an initial ground-clearing question: “Is model-building appropriate in relating theological and scientific truths?” and, having given an affirmative answer to this question, we will then go on to consider what model might be the most appropriate for relating the theological and scientific narratives.

Is model-building appropriate?

There are some who would maintain that the truths presented by the early chapters of Genesis are theological truths that are valid independently of any particular anthropological history. The purpose of the Genesis texts is to reveal the source of creation in the actions of the one true God who has made humanity uniquely in His image. The Genesis 3 narrative of man’s disobedience is the ‘story of everyman’. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and this passage presents this truth in a vivid narrative style that is about theology rather than history.

Those who adopt this position may also point to the dangers of a ‘concordist’ view of biblical interpretation. The term ‘concordism’ (in its traditional sense) generally refers to the attempt to interpret Scripture inappropriately using the assumptions or language of science. Calvin famously countered such tendencies in his great Commentary on Genesis, remarking on Chapter 1: “Nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere.” But the term ‘concordism’ is also sometimes stretched to include virtually any attempt to relate biblical and scientific truths. Such a critique appears to be a step too far, for in that case our theology becomes too isolated from the world, contrasting with the famous ‘two books’ analogy in which the Book of God’s Word, the Bible, and the Book of God’s Works, the created order, both speak to us in their distinctive ways about the same reality. This powerful analogy has held sway for many centuries in the dialogue between science and faith, and the challenge is to see how the two ‘Books’ speak to each other, for all truth is God’s truth.

Building models to relate biblical texts to science requires no concordist interpretations of the text (in the traditional sense of the word ‘concordist’). The disciplines of both science and theology should be accorded their own integrity. The Genesis texts should be allowed to speak within their own contexts and thought-forms, which are clearly very distant from those of modern science. We can all agree that the early chapters of Genesis exist to convey theology and not science. The task of models is then to explore how the theological truths of Genesis might relate to our current scientific understanding of human origins.

The models that we propose are not the same as the ‘data’. On one hand we have the theological data provided by Genesis and the rest of Scripture, true for all people throughout time. Uncertainty here arises only from doubt as to whether our interpretations of the text are as solid as they can be. On the other hand we have the current scientific data that are always open to revision, expansion or to better interpretation. Nevertheless the data are overwhelmingly supportive of certain scientific truths, for example that we share a common genetic inheritance with the apes. The role of models is to treat both theological and scientific truths seriously and see how they might ‘speak’ to each other, but we should never defend a particular model as if we were referring to the data itself. The whole point of any model is that it represents a human construct that seeks to relate different types of truth; models are not found within the text of Scripture – the most that we can expect from them is that they are ‘consistent with’ the relevant Biblical texts. Let us never confuse the model with the truths that it seeks to connect to each other.

In practice any western reader of the Genesis text, raised in a culture heavily influenced by the language and thought-forms of science, can hardly avoid the almost instinctive tendency to build models or pictures in their heads as to what they might have observed had they been there when ‘it’ happened. This is the case irrespective of whether someone comes to the text as a young earth creationist, an old earth creationist, or some kind of theistic evolutionist. Given that we all tend to build models anyway, we might as well ensure that the model we do maintain has been thoroughly subjected to critical scrutiny. This is important not only for own personal integrity but also in the pastoral context in which we seek to avoid unnecessary cognitive dissonance in the minds of those under our pastoral care.

Denis Alexander is the Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, to which he was elected a Fellow in 1998. Alexander writes, lectures, and broadcasts widely in the field of science and religion. He is a member of the International Society for Science and Religion.

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Dick Fischer - #44516

December 20th 2010

eddy - #44477, wrote:

“The very fact that Genesis says only humans are made in the “image of God” is in and of itself a provoking scientific statement. “

The “fact” is that Adam was created in the image.  Bible expositors have taken the phrase “in the image of God” and blown it into proportions far beyond the simpler intentions of the text.  An “image” is a likeness or representation of something.  In Leviticus 26:1, the children of Israel were told to make “no idols nor graven image.”  Idols themselves can become objects of worship, obscuring the one true God who accepts worship directly.  “The image of Baal” (II Kings 3:2) was an object of pagan worship, being a representation of that false deity.

In Genesis 1:27, Adam represented God, having been “created in His own image.”  This status was passed through the godly line of Seth (Gen. 5:3).  Noah and his generations were God’s chosen people, and thus were “in the image” (Gen. 9:6).  This status as representatives of God was conferred upon the Israelites through the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 17:1-8).

Today, those “in the image” would be followers of Christ “who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature” (Col. 1:15).

eddy - #44545

December 21st 2010

Dick Fischer, I understand everything you say. My point is that God created humans in such a way that we are the only creatures intrinsically properly equipped to potentially represent God on earth. That is a scientific question: how differently crafted are we that it is not anything living but human population capable of a bit of comprehension about God? Is it due to the size of brain cortex? Special arrangement of neurones? Uniqueness of genetic information? Special out of the body entity called the soul? A combination of all? We may never know.  We will not pretend we will have all answers about science and God. But we are, at least from the Christian perspective, not going to make a distinction between science and theology.  Science will be how God made it and theology, who God is. And when Scripture say God made it this way where do people get the audacity to challenge what God has revealed?

Jon Garvey - #44555

December 21st 2010

@eddy - #44545

Eddy, I’m just reading an excellent book by David and Ann Premack, psychologists specialising in animal intelligence, called “Original Intelligence”. From an experimental psychological, rather than strictly biological, viewpoint, they give an excellent account of the deep divide between human intelligence and even our closest ape relatives (for those of us who accept they *are* relatives!). It’s quite encouraging to read evidence that the difference is more than one simply of degree.

The book goes a long way to answering in detail the kind of questions you ask in your last post. But I would argue that man’s “imageness” doesn’t consist of his intellectual or other ability either to comprehend God or to act as his regent on earth - essential though those things obviously are - but to the relationship God chose to have.

The parallel with Christian life is close: to bear the image of Christ there is no physical or intellectual change in us, but a new relationship which, if it changes our “nature” at all, does so in the spiritual realm that is not amenable to scientific investigation.

Dick Fischer - #44568

December 21st 2010

Hi eddy - #44545, you wrote:

“And when Scripture say God made it this way where do people get the audacity to challenge what God has revealed?”

The main problem as I see it is that Genesis was translated in the KJV with the mindset that Adam was the first human, that a worlwide flood wiped out all but Noah and family, and every language spoken on earth eminated from Babylon.  Subsequent translations have modernized the English but haven’t deviated from the tradition established in 1611.

Modern interpretations circulating today are still based on erroneious translations.  Plus, there are clues in Scripture itself that the traditional, conservative interpretation is dead wrong.  For example, how could the flood have been global when the pre-fllod Gen. 6:4 “giants” gave birth to the post-flood sons of Anak in Num. 13:33?

We dont’t need to challenge God’s word, but we can challenge erroneous translations and interpretations.  For me, resolving Bible and science conflicts is an easier process when we allow the history of the ancient Near East to influence time-honored but flawed interpretations.

That’s been my focus.

Denver Jay - #44627

December 22nd 2010

To John VanZwieten

The bible certainly does make the claim of inerrantcy. One place this claim is made is in Mathew 5:18 “For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (NKJV)

“jot” and “tittle” are Latin punctuation marks, and a (rough) comparison in modern English might be something like “Until the Universe ends, everything in the holy texts will be true, even down to the lowest comma and apostrophe”.

Of course the original was in Greek, using the words “iota” and “keraia”, with “iota”  being the smallest Greek letter, and “keraia” being a sort of hook used to denote certain subtle differences in the letter it is applied too, kind of like the difference between a capital or lower case letter in English, (although not the same, I am just using that as an example of how the same letter can have different connotations.)

I make no comment on the truth of these texts; I merely point out that they do, indeed, claim to be inerrant.

Cal - #44629

December 22nd 2010

Denver Jay:

There has to be more to Matthew 5:8 because there are some differences between the original Hebrew texts found and the Greek Septuagint that was quoted by Jesus and the Apostles. In those days, it was commonly understood that there had been a translation.

Putting it in context, Jesus is responding to grumbles that He was some sort of anti-nomian, trying to ruin God’s pronouncement to Moses. Jesus responds by saying that the Law will remain in place, not one piece of it has or is fading away until it is fulfilled. And it was fulfilled by Jesus when He died on the cross and broke Sin’s hold on Mankind.

So concluding: this verse is not referring to the body of Scripture being “inerrant” and that Law has been fulfilled by God, laying down His life for us.

eddy - #44631

December 22nd 2010

“The main problem as I see it is that Genesis was translated in the KJV with the mindset that Adam was the first human, that a worlwide flood wiped out all but Noah and family, and every language spoken on earth eminated from Babylon…....Modern interpretations circulating today are still based on erroneious translations.”

That was too liberal for my taste! Dick Fischer, I would advise that if you cannot bring your mind that Genesis is error free in terms of historical and theological content and transmission fidelity, you better simply read it with a secular mindset that it is purely an ancient text with no divine authorship whatsoever, nothing more and nothing less. That will be surely disappointing from my position, but it will at least be consistent.  Dick, you sure are a bible scholar and pretty much convinced of the historical errors that Genesis contains, don’t you? Please, let me know what convinces you of the second thought that it can still be considered error free God’s Word?

Dick Fischer - #44682

December 22nd 2010

Hi eddy - #44631, you wrote:

“Dick, you sure are a bible scholar and pretty much convinced of the historical errors that Genesis contains, don’t you?”

Alas, I think I have been misunderstood.  I am the one who correlated Genesis as written in the Hebrew with the history of the ancient Near East.  (http://www.HistoricalGenesis.com)  Translators, totally unaware of the historical underpinnings of Genesis, pushed it into the direction of a young-earth position.  Where they could have written the high hills were covered by the flood they translated it instead as the “high mountains,” vaulting a historical Mesopotamian flood into something that could envelope the planet.

I have no problem with Genesis as originally written.  In my opinion most of the Bible-science conflict stems from bad translation and interpretation.

Peter Hickman - #44702

December 22nd 2010

Denver Jay:

If Jesus actually said what is recorded in Matthew 5.18 (and I have no reason to suppose that he didn’t), surely the statement applies specifically to the Law and not generally to the entire Bible?
Even if it can be said to be an inerrancy statement it is limited in its extent.

Equally John’s statement in Revelation 22.18 applies only to the Revelation (many folk misapply it to the entire Bible).
Similarly, 2 Timothy 3.16, whilst not an inerrancy statement per se, should strictly be applied only to that which was deemed to be inspired scripture at the time Paul wrote it (and nothing else that we may wish to apply it to many years later).

I appreciate that there will be other evidences for inerrancy that you might want to adduce, but we should be careful when extrapolating the meaning and purpose of a text.

LDavidH - #45090

December 27th 2010

As an evangelical Christian, I find it hard to understand why other evangelical Christians seem to struggle with the idea that the Bible - including Genesis - can be fully and completely trusted as God-revealed truth. 2 Tim 3:16, referred to by Peter Hickman, must surely include Genesis as “that which was deemed to be inspired Scripture at the time”? Paul consistently assumes that Adam was a real historical person (especially Rom 5). He might have been wrong - but if so, there is no point in being a Christian, as that would mean we don’t really have any sure basis for believing anything else in the NT!
When I was young, I assumed that theistic evolution was true - simply because that was all I’d ever heard of. When, in my twenties, I discovered creationism, I was quite relieved: there was no need, after all, to try and reconcile Darwin and the Bible. It is perfectly possible to accept Genesis as true, historical fact, while maintaining your scientific honesty. You may choose not to believe in it, but then that is your choice, not a scientific necessity. There are plenty of resources out there for anyone who wants to examine the scientific basis of creationism, so please let’s not make unwarranted assumptions.

Paul D. - #45092

December 27th 2010

“It is perfectly possible to accept Genesis as true, historical fact, while maintaining your scientific honesty. “

LDavidH, I have to disagree with you there. I was raised as a Creationist (even made to spend all my schooling at a private school where I was taught that evolution, the Big Bang, and solar fusion were lies spread by humanists to discredit Christianity). It took me many years to come to grips with the fact that good, honest scientists (including many Christians) do good, honest work in biology, geology, astronomy, and palaeontology which affirms that the earth is 4 billion years ago and that life evolved from a common ancestor. It was with sadness that I realized every Creationist argument to the contrary was not just wrong, but was riddled without outright falsehoods and fabrications. I have not found any exception to this, aside from the one honest creationist I know off, Todd Wood, who still acknowledges that evolution explains evidence Creationism does not.

LDavidH - #45110

December 27th 2010

Paul D, thanks for your serious reply to my comment. Yes, of course there are many good Christian scientists who accept evolution; but that doesn’t necessarily make it true. I would like to question your statement that “every Creationist argument ... was ... riddled with outright falsehoods”. The main creationist argument on the theme of Adam is: (1) The Bible is God’s Word, therefore 100% true; (2) the Bible maintains that Adam was a real person in history; therefore, Adam was a real person in history. An evangelical Christian cannot believe that the first premise is a falsehood or a fabrication. Anybody else can, of course; but I understand the BioLogos website to claim to be evangelical.
I would be very interested to hear what falsehoods and fabrications you are referring to. Yes, there have been mistaken or naive arguments on the creationist side (the most stupid one being “If man evolved from apes, why are there still apes?”) but I don’t think any serious creationist uses such arguments. When was the last time you studied the scientific arguments used by (for instance) Answers in Genesis? Since I started out the opposite from you, I have had to look into them, and I don’t agree with your assessment of them.

Dick Fischer - #45111

December 27th 2010

For: LDavidH - #45090

Creationist explanations are based upon a misunderstanding of Genesis.  Please read my article in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (published twenty years ago) and forward it on to your creationist friends.

Young Earth Creationism: A Literal Mistake:


LDavidH - #45127

December 27th 2010

Dear Dick,
Thanks for referring me to your article! Very interesting and well-written, and with a sound commitment to the truth of the Bible. I remain a creationist, however, mainly because of the same commitment. The NT clearly teaches a) that Adam was a historical person, and b) that death as a phenomenon came into the world because Adam sinned. I believe this requires a literal reading of Genesis.

A few other comments:
Your arguments about the word “day” are well known and not irrefutable. There is no need to try and fit all of Gen 2 into Day 6 (the idea that Day 7 still continues today is interpretation, not fact), nor did Satan’s fall have to “occur before the advent of man”, since the time span between Gen 2 and 3 isn’t specified. The claim that “Over 99% of all the species which once roamed the earth are now extinct” is improvable and most likely incorrect - and how do you define “species” anyway? Are dog/wolf/fox one or three? Finally, I think saying that the age of the earth is “easily verified” is simply dishonest (sorry)!

And as for blinkers and no listening to reason, well… I think that accusation works just as well (or better) the other way!

LDavidH - #45129

December 27th 2010

Sorry - I meant that your claim was “unprovable”. Blame the spell-checker!

LDavidH - #45157

December 28th 2010

Oops - I have realised another mistake, entirely my own fault this time. Yes, Gen 2 does of course have to fit into Day 6 (although Gen 3 doesn’t). Adam’s naming the animals is still not a problem, though, since a) most of them were probably quite close at hand anyway, and b) there wouldn’t have been more “species” than had to fit into the Ark in Gen 6-9 (i.e. one dog/wolf/fox etc), which means Adam would probably had have ample time to name them before his rib surgery.

Anyway, I still think the issue at stake is: where does the ultimate authority lie? Do we start with the Bible, and then look at everything around us - including fossils and tectonic plates - in the light of God’s revelation to us (which is what creationists aim to do), or do we start with the theories of mostly non-Christian scientists and then look at everything around us - including the Bible - in the light of their presuppositions?

Now this isn’t a matter of salvation, and when we meet in heaven we can (hopefully) laugh at mistakes made on both sides, and it won’t matter any more. Until then, we must keep seeking the truth, since we belong to Him who is the Truth. Thank you for helping me think more clearly about these things!

Dick Fischer - #45187

December 28th 2010

I too believe in the integrity of Scripture on matters of human history and I’m a proponent of a “historical Adam” and a historical Noah to boot.  Indeed no other person living or dead has compiled as much corroborative evidence in that regard.  I would point out, however, that a historical Adam is not a creationist position.

Creationists adhere to a “literal Adam” as a flesh and blood human being but insist he was the progenitor of all mankind.  There’s the rub.  Essentially, creationists ignore 200,000 years of Homo sapiens which do not commence in southern Mesopotamia where Genesis places the covenant couple.

Our species did not start out farming and raising livestock, living in tents, playing musical instruments or using artifacts of bronze and iron included in Genesis in the historical setting of the pre-flood Adamites.

Had early Christians properly understood Genesis as Semitic history instead of thinking it was human history we wouldn’t be having this discussion today.

To be a creationist is to not only ignore scientific evidence but to twist science into knots to conform to their misunderstanding of the Genesis text.  And historical evidence is the third rail for creationists.  Touch it - they die.

LDavidH - #45197

December 28th 2010

Hmmm, interesting! I’ll keep looking into it.
But I don’t like the accusation that creationists wilfully ignore historical / scientific evidence. I don’t think that’s true. The evidence is the same for everybody, it’s the interpretative framework that differs.
Anyway, I’ll stop here - everything I could say has already been said by AiG and other creationist organisations. As I said, when we get to heaven we’ll see the whole picture and the whole truth - but by then, it won’t matter any more!
God bless!

Dick Fischer - #45281

December 29th 2010

I won’t say creationists have ignored historical evidence as it isn’t commonly known.  But why would AIG not even look for it?  On the science side I see little excuse for creationist attempts at convoluting science. However, I believe God will honor an honest search.  If you view my web site there are some good links to help you.


Jerry Wickey - #45494

December 31st 2010

I would be very interested in fearless discussion of various models of those events described in Genesis 1.

One which appeals to me, but which requires ruthless rational integrity is thus.

God in multiple creation events consistent with the text, authored whole and entire the genomes of each species including that of man.  Each genome is complex and provides for epigenetic bounded natural variation, but retains “seed within itself and kind after its kind.”  In the seventh creation event, Adam was created, not as a separate species, since man had already been created, but Adam was endowed with God’s spirit “breathed” into him. 

This suggests that some men are not as all men.  This is a dangerous hypothesis, but warrants inspection because it not only answers many of the intractable evolutionary genetic questions but also answers satisfactorily why some very well educated individuals describe their stream of conscienceness experience different than other well educated individuals do.  However, this difference can never be detected.  It is quite literally naturalistic biological “flesh” at odds with a spirit, unconstrained by the laws of physics.

I welcome discussion.

Jerry Wickey
800 722 2280
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